While Twitter is earning some praise for its decision to ban political advertising as of November 22, sharp-eyed analysts are pointing to an aspect of the social platform’s new policy that gives fossil industry propaganda a new advantage.
When Twitter first announced its decision, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted that it was a “good call,” adding that “if a company cannot or does not wish to run basic fact-checking on paid political advertising, then they should not run paid political ads at all”.
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But “there’s a significant downside to Twitter’s decision,” Grist reports. “Ads that ‘advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance,’ like immigration, health care, and, yes, climate change, are on the chopping block. And when it comes to the issue of climate change, Twitter’s new policy gives oil and gas companies a leg up, and the folks who want to regulate those companies a kneecapping.”
The problem, explains reporter Zoya Teirstein, is with fossil messaging that touts the industry’s limited investment in clean energy development—or, for that matter, colossal fossil Chevron’s work protecting turtles in the Philippines—while “in Congress, these same companies are spending hundreds of millions every year to lobby against any kind of climate regulation that will hurt their bottom lines”.
The new policy “allows ExxonMobil to keep filling up your newsfeed with ads about a biofuel that isn’t going to be commercially viable for at least another decade. But it bans a politician from buying ad space to tell you that, if elected, they plan to go after Big Oil.”
In yesterday’s edition of her new HEATED newsletter, veteran climate journalist Emily Atkin traces the problem back to Twitter’s definition of an “issue ad”, and how the sprawling social network plans to enforce it. “A HEATED investigation identified more than a dozen tweets from ExxonMobil related to climate change that are not currently labelled by Twitter as political ‘issue’ ads,” Atkin writes. “Under the new policy, these ads will be permitted to run after November 22, while environmental groups’ climate-related ads will be banned.”
Twitter declined to comment when Atkin tried to ask them why Exxon’s promos would not be considered political. “We don’t have anything to share beyond the original announcement at this point,” a spokesperson said. But Harvard University researcher Geoffrey Supran was less hesitant.
“Mobil and ExxonMobil have pioneered issue advertising for decades,” he told Atkin. “I’ve studied this historical record in detail, and it couldn’t be clearer to me that Twitter ads like these are its 21st century extension. These Twitter ads aren’t just any political issue ads—they epitomize the art.”
HEATED digs into Exxon Twitter ads touting its research on biofuels and carbon capture and storage technology, and trying to counter the multiple lawsuits the company faces, alleging it knowingly misled investors and consumers on the climate risks of fossil fuels.
“ExxonMobil has been trying to paint itself as a climate-friendly corporation via Twitter ads for more than a year,” Atkin writes. In at least one of them, the world’s 16th most profitable company tries to cast itself as the victim of an “extremely well-funded” political campaign by wealthy environmentalists bent on destroying it.
“They’re literally alleging a political conspiracy,” Supran said. “What else do you call a paid social media campaign designed to discredit peer-reviewed science? It’s not product advertising, and it sure as heck isn’t science.”
As for the biofuel and CCS ads, “they’re promoting technologies that don’t yet exist at any meaningful scale,” he told Atkin. “There is not a product to sell. So what purpose do these ads conceivably serve other than to promote a political narrative on climate change and energy that protects Exxon’s business interests?”
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